The popularity of working in public locations like coffee shops, hotels and co-working spaces has exploded in recent years.

Stronger wireless internet signals are now common place in public spaces and we are all grateful when we see a ‘Free Wi-Fi’ sign, when looking for a spot to catch up on some work while out of the office.

Many people connect to a public wi-fi wireless network without giving it much thought. But with cyber security threats consistently increasing in volume and complexity are we safe using public wi-fi?

The short answer is no. But there are some steps you can take to minimise your risk.

There will always be risks associated with connecting a device to any form of public network. It is difficult to establish whether the relevant security principles required to maintain protection levels have been maintained by the wi-fi provider.

At Planet IT our technicians have dealt with cases for clients of devices being hacked and infections spread from public wi-fi. Such cases usually stem back to the user connecting to a wireless network named something like “FREE WIFI” or “The Cloud”.

Wifi public places

There are two common ways in which a hacker can use this to their advantage. The first is to simply connect to the network as well and if the provider has not secured the local connection scan and attack any devices connected to the wireless network

The second and more sophisticated method is commonly called ‘The Man in The Middle Attack. In simple terms the attacker impersonates the wireless network with a device they bring with them and you connect to the network and use it. In the background they can then intercept all of you traffic and pass it on.

Developers have started making changes to their systems to protect against the second type of attack. The threat has been reduced by moving from http to https connections, which means traffic sent is encrypted. However, with the right knowledge and technology hackers can still obtain information.

The first type of attack is more common and continues to pose a risk. However, if you need to use public wi-fi, there are a few simple steps you can take to reduce your risk to exposure of being hacked.

1. Connect to a secured public network whenever possible. If you’re unable to connect to a secured network, using an unsecured network would be permissible if the connection requires a login or registration.

2. Have up to date anti-virus and anti-malware software installed on your devices - if you have the latest updated antivirus on your laptop it will prevent any inbound attacks getting onto your device and spreading.

3. Have your firewall turned on - on both Windows and MacOS there is a built-in software firewall designed to stop inbound traffic from unwanted sources reaching your devices, ensure this is turned on and only the ports you need open are open.

4. Never use internet banking, send business critical e-mails or access systems including financial information, intellectual property or sensitive information while connected to pubic wi-fi. If you would be at risk if the data was lost, stolen or leaked then don’t access, send or receive any sensitive data while connected to public wi-fi, to reduce your risk.

5. If you have access to a Remote Desktop connection or Citrix then use them instead of public wi-fi. This will be able to shield you from interception.

6. Monitor your Bluetooth connectivity. Leaving Bluetooth on while in public places can pose a huge risk to your cybersecurity. Bluetooth connectivity allows various devices to communicate with each other, and a hacker can source open Bluetooth signals to gain access to your devices. It is advisable to keep this function on your devices switched off when you leave your office, or home.

If you need advice on how to keep your data safe and how best to apply cyber security best practice to your business, then you can contact one of our security specialists on 01235 433 900.